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Allegheny County Council Makes Few Changes In Response To Government Review Recommendations

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The Allegheny County Council has made few changes in the 10 months since it was given recommendations by the Government Review Commission.

Roughly ten months after receiving recommendations from the Government Review Commission, Allegheny County council members have been slow to make changes.

The review commission, made of up of nine people, meets every 10 years as stipulated by the Allegheny County Home Rule Charter, for a top-to-bottom review of government operations. It met in 2015 and had a year to review county operations.  

In March, the commission completed the first decennial review. Members made 23 recommendations, including pay increases and public hearings on its recommendations.

Commission member Jim Nowalk admits the recommendations aren’t binding, but urged the county council and chief executive to address them.

“We would be naive to think they would adopt every single recommendation that we made,” Nowalk said. “But on the other hand, every single recommendation should be given a public airing and they should say, ‘Well, we considered this but we rejected the recommendation for these reasons.’”

Republican at-large county council member Sam DeMarco said he agrees with Nowalk’s desire for up or down votes but, “as far as a time frame to commit to something that was purely advisory, I don’t necessarily feel bound by that suggestion.”

Council did follow up on a recommendation to update the county’s Minority- and Women-owned business regulations, which was already in the works before the report was released.  The county's system of certifying Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Enterprises is now held up as a model across the state. The code calls for 13 percent of the county's contracts to go to minority-owned business and an additional 2 percent to go to "Women/Socially and Economic Disadvantaged Business Enterprises."

Council also took action on recommendations to increase pay for some elected officials.

The county executive will get a 44 percent pay increase and county council members will get a bump in annual stipends, though, according to state law, pay raises won’t go into effect until 2020 when all the members of council and the county executive have had to stand for reelection.

Under the legislation approved in November, pay for the County Executive is set at 68 percent of the Pennsylvania governor’s salary. That would mean at least a 44 percent increase for the executive from the current $90,000 to $129,760.

Council members do not get a salary because they are part-time lawmakers but do receive stipends. The maximum stipend jumps more than 20 percent from $3,000 a year to $3,646. That amount will increase 5 percent every five years.

Nowalk said the increases were due and “a matter of good government.”

“There’s been no salary increase in 15 years,” Nowalk said.

Other issues, such as the suggestion that all county revenues and spending move through the county treasurer’s office could be done administratively by the county executive.

Allegheny County Manager William McKain said that suggestion was considered, but won’t be implemented.

“The controls for the county I think are very solid,” he said.

McKain said the county is audited internally, externally and by the state and federal governments.

“At this point, I think that the collection of monies and the safeguarding of those assets is adequate at this time,” he said.

McKain noted the administration has followed the suggestion of the commission to stagger internal reviews of county departments so they don’t all take place at the same time. Since the inception of the Home Rule Charter, all of the reviews were done at the same time, causing an administrative bottleneck.

Mark Foerster, chair of the Government Review Commission, said he is pleased with the actions that have been taken. Though he said he is getting a bit anxious to see a more bills introduced and passed, he knows it cannot all be done in one year.

“(Councilmembers) have full agendas and these recommendations require time to analyze and make sure that there is nothing from their perspective that is unintended consequences,” Foerster said. “I’m sure they will be addressing them in 2017.”

One item that’s been nearly ignored by both the council and the administration is a recommendation that a task force explore the idea of a merger of the county police and the county sheriff’s office.

“There’s no specific formal review,” McKain said. “There’s a lot of conversation, a lot of meetings, almost daily or weekly, between the Allegheny County Sheriff Mullen and the superintendent of county police, but it’s under the current structure as it is today.”

Nowalk said he was not satisfied with that answer.

“It deserves to be examined,” he said. “And that’s what we were recommending. Not a particular outcome. The conversation needs to be started again and some recommendation needs to be made and explain to the public why they are not being combined or why they should be.”

Though county officials decided against forming a task force, Jennifer Liptak, chief of staff to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, said review is always welcome.

“Our forefathers and mothers designed a process, which I thought was really reflective of the needs of the community,” Liptak said. “I think it’s one of the most, best open government additions that they did to the Home Rule.”

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